VHessays aren't about the greatest movies of our generation. They're about hidden gems and guilty pleasures. We write them to bring back memories of a different era of filmmaking and hopefully send you searching through an old closet to find your VHS tapes.
Ohhh, Max and Jinx...
In the 80s, space was still a place to dream about. Astronauts were still top-five on the "what I want to be when I grow up" list. The Apollo missions and moon landings of the 60s had given way to Space Shuttle missions. We may not have always known what the point of those enormously expensive missions were, but we were excited either way because the Shuttle was cool. The Shuttle looked like an honest-to-goodness space ship. Oh how we envied the kids that got to go to the real Space Camp (I'm looking at you, John Ashley Ponsoll) and marveled at their shiny packages of freeze-dried, astronaut ice-cream.
Challenger - 1986
Every Shuttle launch leading up to '86 was a big deal. They were an event. And the popularity culminated with an estimated 48% of all American children, ages 9-13 (and I was one of them), gathered in school rooms to see Christa McAuliffe become the first school teacher in space on January 28th. There we sat in excitement, gathered around televisions like generations before us, but rather than seeing a man walk on the moon, we saw the Challenger explode and disintegrate right in front of our eyes.
It was the first where-were-you-when moment since JFK's assassination and, after that, nothing was quite the same for kids' perception of NASA and the space program. At that moment Space Camp officially became an unprecedented marketing nightmare as it was released less than five months later. Roger Ebert gave it one and a half stars, saying our thoughts about the Shuttle could never be the same, the memories were too painful and the movie was "doomed before it begins."
With all that said, I want to put those events out of our minds for the purpose of this essay / analysis. By the time the film hit rental shelves, a year had passed since the incident. It may have still been fresh in the minds of adults but, as a nine year-old, I sat down ready to enjoy the movie without any previous emotional equity. .......I was nine and it was a movie about space! Do you know how much a nine-year-old can put behind them in a year?
When cut free of that framing, Space Camp is a fun look at the space program before it all changed. A classic tale about dreaming big. It's unashamedly hokey and cliché and those are all the things I love about it today. I was able to watch the movie without the burden of the tragedy on my mind. I enjoyed it on its own merits and that is exactly how we're going to look at it now.
Space Camp has quite the who's-who 80s lineup. None other than the Viper himself, Tom Skerritt (Top Gun was in theaters at exactly the same time). Kate Capshaw hot off of Temple of Doom, the future Mrs. John Travolta, Lamar from Revenge of the Nerds, Leaf? (Joaquin) Phoenix, Lea Thompson and Tate Donovan... Is it possible that any red-blooded American male wasn't crushing hard on Lea Thompson in 1986?
Make no mistake, the movie is not great. Every character is two-dimensional at best and obviously manages to conquer their single flaw by the end of the movie. It's as sappy as it can possibly be, full of cliches and bad dialogue, but it was right in my wheelhouse at the time. I loved it. I thought Kevin was cool. I identified with Max. I was in love with Kathryn... The whole nine yards. And that's why it has a permanent spot on my mental movie shelf.
At the beginning of Space Camp we find a young Andie Bergstrom, staring at the night sky, spotting an Apollo orbiter, and dreaming of "going up." When we flash forward, she's the first female Shuttle pilot and getting ready to spend the summer helping her husband, Zach (Skerritt!) who is the camp director and a former Apollo astronaut.
Andie is tasked with teaching five kids from different backgrounds the true value of teamwork and leadership. Those happen to be the two main themes for kids attending the actual Space Camp (which you can apparently still attend to this day.) (Even you adults who are looking for a special weekend. Ohhhh yes. Let the romance begin.) Kevin, Kathryn, Rudy, Tish, and Max are a rag-tag group who can't quite make it work as a cohesive team due to their individual flaws. However, they're forced to come together when Max's robot friend Jinx, who is sentient for some reason, decides to hack into NASA's talking computer system and actually launch Max into space during an engine test because they are friends "for-eeeeeev-ver."
I will admit, believing there was a small possibility of accidentally being shot into space made me slightly less eager to attend Space Camp myself, at the time. Now, about this especially annoying robot... Didn't I tell you in the Rocky IV VHessay that filmmakers in the 80s had a robot obsession? Jinx certainly won't be the last one we see in these essays. Not by a long shot.
Okay, so the shuttle wasn't prepared for an actual launch, which means they are low on oxygen and have no long-range radio to communicate with mission control. (Do they remove the radio after every mission?) Andie takes them to an under-construction space station, Daedalus, which I just assumed actually existed but apparently never did. Daedalus has oxygen cannisters on it, but Andie is too big to reach them in her space suit. I'm not sure why you'd make them inaccessible when you installed them, but regardless... They tie little Max into a space suit using Tish's belt. The belt looks normal enough when she hands it to them, but apparently it's actually 50 feet long because it can wrap completely around the suit several times over. They do this under the notion that Max will be able to fit through the station rigging and reach the oxygen... in the exact same suit that Andie is wearing. I don't know, but somehow it works. Yadda yadda Max almost floats out into space. Andie gets knocked out. Kathryn nearly decides to reenter the atmosphere with Andie hanging outside the shuttle. Kevin chooses to bring her in. They all have to conquer their flaws and work together as a team to get home. They land the shuttle. End Credits.
No, seriously, Atlantis touches down (via stock footage no less) and the credits roll. I'm not sure what that's about. No relieved parents. No reuniting of Zach and Andie. No resolution with Max and Jinx. No hint of continued romance between Kevin and Kathryn. Nope. That's it. Get out. Granted, it's easy enough to finish this one off in your head, but still. It seems a bit abrupt.
Kevin as 80s America - A Cautionary Tale
Apart from the value of teamwork, the writer sneaks in a good old soapbox theme about where America and the world were headed. Its an absolutely classic 80s worldview and he lays it on thick. In a conversation on the beach, Kathryn plays the voice of reason to Kevin, who I believe is meant to represent the typical, disillusioned American mindset. The writer/Kathryn points out the untouched beauty of space. Kevin wants to know what the big deal is. Well, Kevin, "In space anything is possible." Kathryn surmises that maybe we can do things right up there... instead of screwing them up like we have down here. True to jaded form, Kevin responds, "What's the point? I mean, we're all just going to get nuked anyway." (YEAH! Try to find a line that's more 80s than that.) Kathryn says that's just an excuse for people who are afraid to try. Kevin says he isn't afraid, but he just doesn't care. And BANG, there it is. Lazy Americans had lost their way and decided not to care because it's easier than trying to change things. I mean you couldn't possibly be more preachy in four minutes if you tried. And yet, at least it's a hopeful message for change and I can get behind that. Kathryn believes Kevin does care and is simply afraid to try and fail.